KIEV: A comedian whose political experience is limited to playing the president on TV, presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky is likely to top the first round as Ukrainians vote for a leader Sunday, amid frustrations over living standards and corruption.
Zelensky’s bid started as a long shot but he has leapfrogged establishment politicians in the nation of 45 million that is fighting a Russia-backed separatist conflict in its east.
The 41-year-old star of the political comedy “Servant of the People,” which returned for its third season this week, had more than 25 percent support in final surveys, well ahead of his nearest rivals.
Incumbent Petro Poroshenko was vying with ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to face Zelensky in a run-off next month, according to polls.
One recent survey put them neck and neck at around 17 percent, though another showed Poroshenko-who amassed a vast fortune in the chocolate business before being elected leader in 2014-pulling ahead of ally-turned-foe Tymoshenko to make the second round.
In polling stations across Ukraine, voters expressed dissatisfaction with the candidates and many told surveyors they were opting for what they saw as the least of three evils.
“I’m voting for anyone apart from Poroshenko. I don’t believe him, he cheated us,” said 40-year-old housewife Olga, who had come to a polling station in the Western city of Lviv with her young daughter.
“I’m just going to go into the booth and decide who to vote for. I just don’t know. Definitely not for Zelensky,” said Irina, a 35-year-old manicurist in central Kiev.
In the eastern city of Mariupol, near the frontline of the separatist conflict that has cost some 13,000 lives over five years, soldiers were among those casting their ballots.
The war is “the main question for everyone,” said 22-year-old soldier Sergiy, without specifying who he was voting for. “The country is tired of this situation, people are tired.”
There are a record 39 candidates on the ballot paper, but only the three front-runners have a realistic chance of progressing to a run-off vote.
All three have said they will keep Ukraine on the European course it has charted since the 2014 revolution that forced pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych out of office.
The popular uprising was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko was elected on promises to tackle graft, align Ukraine with the West and shut down the separatist fighting.
But today the conflict is grinding on, corruption is rife and the country is struggling to recover from an economic crisis that began in 2014.
The 53-year-old president has positioned himself as the only person able to stand up to the Kremlin and has promised to return Crimea to Ukraine if he is re-elected.
The pledge has been widely dismissed as unrealistic.
Zelensky, meanwhile, has been criticised for the vagueness of his manifesto, the key pledges of which were chosen following a public vote on social media.
The entertainer has eschewed rallies and interviews in favour of playing gigs with his comedy troupe up to the final days of campaigning.
But supporters say only a brand new face can clean up the murky politics of one of the poorest nations in Europe.
Some accuse Zelensky of acting as a front for the interests of oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, who owns the channel that broadcasts the entertainer’s shows, but he denies any political links.